On 13 September 1944, a beautiful Indian princess lay on the floor in a concentration camp in Dachau. She had been brutally tortured and shot through the head by an SS guard. Her name was Noor Inayat Khan. The Germans knew her only as Nora Baker, a British spy.

In fact she was the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France. She would posthumously be awarded Britain’s highest civilian honour, the George Cross and France would bestow on her the Croix de Guerre. But on that bleak September day, she lay alone.


The story of Noor Inayat Khan, descendant of the famous seventeenth century Indian ruler, Tipu Sultan, is one of the most intriguing and tragic stories of the Second World War.

Noor and her American Mother Ora Ray Khan

Noor and her American Mother Ora Ray Khan

She was born on 1 January 1914 in a monastery just outside the Kremlin in Moscow. Her father was a Sufi preacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan, and her mother was an American, Ora Ray Baker.  Her father had travelled from his homeland of Baroda in India to the West on the instructions of his teacher, who had told him to take his message of music and peace to the world. Trained in Indian classical music, Inayat Khan picked up his veena and left for New York with his brothers. They set up a group called the Royal Musicians of Hindustan and travelled around the US giving concerts and recitals combined with Inayat Khan’s lectures on Sufism.

Political Discontent

It was while on a lecture tour in California that Inayat met Noor’s mother, Ora Ray Baker, and soon the two fell in love. The couple were married in London and Ora Ray was christened Begum Amina Sharada. She wore a sari to match her husband’s golden robes.

In 1913 Hazrat Inayat Khan was invited to sing in a salon in Moscow and it was here in the Vusoko Petrovsky monastery, a short distance from the Kremlin, that Noor was born. Her full name was Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan. It meant “light of womanhood”. Her title was Pirzadi, daughter of the Pir. At home she was affectionately called Babuli.

But Moscow in 1914 was seething with political discontent and Inayat Khan was advised to leave. As the First World War engulfed Europe, the family left for England, where they lived for the next six years. In London, three more children were born. Noor, barely four years old, mothered them all.

When Noor was six, the family set sail for France again and began to live in a large house on the outskirts of Paris. Inayat Khan called the house Fazal Manzil – or ‘House of Blessing’ – and it was here that Noor was to spend most of her life. Fazal Manzil was everything the name stood for. It became an idyllic family home for the Inayat Khan family. It was always an open house full of music and meditation with Sufis visiting round the year. The children played in the garden and loved sitting on the high steps outside the house looking out over the lights of Paris.

On a clear day one could see as far as the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur. They would dress up in their Indian clothes and give concerts before the Sufi guests. The family was musically talented, the four brothers and sisters formed a quartet.


In 1927, Inayat Khan decided to return to India. He had not been keeping well lately and yearned to go back to his motherland. The family knew in their hearts that he would not return. A few months later they received the devastating news of his death. Noor’s mother, Amina Begum, went into seclusion and refused to come downstairs or meet anybody.

Noor, at the tender age of 13, took responsibility for the family and became a mother to her siblings.  She began to write poems and short stories and found solace in these when the burden of domestic chores became too much to bear.

Slowly she drew her mother out of isolation and Amina Begum returned to wearing western clothes.

After her schooling, Noor studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and also joined the Ecole Normale to study music. Here she fell in love with a Jewish musician and became informally engaged to him. The family disapproved, and she went through many highs and lows as she felt divided between her family and her fiancé.

Noor with her Veena

Noor with her Veena

While her domestic and love life was often quite traumatic, Noor was finding her feet as a writer of children’s stories. Her stories were published in the Sunday section of Le Figaro and in 1939 her first book – Twenty Jataka Tales – was published in England.

However war clouds were gathering in Europe and all dreams for the budding writer were quashed as England and France announced war against Germany. Noor immediately volunteered for the Red Cross and began training. In 1940 with the German army ready to enter Paris, Noor and Vilayat took a crucial decision that was to change their lives. Sitting in their father’s Oriental Room, looking out over the lights of Paris, they decided that they had to fight the Fascists. Though they were Sufis and believed in non-violence they thought they would go to England and volunteer for the war effort.


Noor in WAAF uniform

Noor in WAAF uniform

In a bombed out London, Vilayat volunteered for the RAF, and Noor — following her brother — volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Here she was trained as a radio operator, becoming the first batch of women to train in this field.

But while Noor was tapping away at her Morse code, she was being watched by the Special Operation Executive (SOE), who were looking out for people with language skills.

The SOE was a crack organisation set up by Churchill to aid the Resistance movements in Occupied countries. Their job was sabotage, and providing arms and money to the Resistance.

Noor fitted the bill perfectly. She was fluent in French and knew the area well. She was also a trained wireless operator, a job that was in great demand. It was considered one of the most dangerous areas in the field.

Noor was called for an interview at the offices of the SOE. She had no idea what the organisation was or what it did. She met Selwyn Jepson in a small office at the Victoria Hotel. They spoke in French. Noor was told that she would be sent as an agent to occupied France after training. She would have no protection, as she would not be in uniform, and she would be shot if she was caught. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said she would take the job.

One morning, her colleagues in the WAAF found that she had simply disappeared. There was no note, no forwarding address, just a folded blanket on her bed. Noor had left for her career in the secret service.

SOE training school at Beaulieu

SOE training school at Beaulieu

Noor had been trained as a wireless operator in the WAAF. She was now to be trained as a secret agent; to learn to live with a false identity and to transmit clandestinely. In a selection of country houses spread around England, Noor’s training began.

It was classic spy school – she was taught to handle guns, explosives, to break locks, to kill silently in the dark, to find sources, to use dead letter boxes and live letter boxes, to practise sending letters in code, to improve her morse code. Agents were taught about life in occupied France, shown pictures of the enemy so they could identify them from their uniforms, taught about the German Abwehr, the French Milice and the Gestapo.

Noor’s code name was Madeleine. She practised her signature diligently.

Finally the orders for her departure arrived. She would fly out on the night of June 16. Her immediate head, Vera Atkins, drove with her from the SOE apartments in Orchard Court in London to the airfield in Tangmere. After dinner, last minute checks were carried out. Noor’s pockets were emptied and checked to see that there were no English objects like English cigarettes or train tickets which could give her away. Armed only with a false passport, some French francs, her pistol and a set of four pills including the lethal cyanide pill, Noor prepared for her dangerous mission. Vera Atkins pinned a little silver bird on her lapel. “It will bring you luck,” she said.

Soon it was time to go. As the full moon shone in the clear summer sky, Noor stepped on the airfield. The Lysander was waiting to pick her up.  As she walked on English soil for the last time, Noor felt elated. She was keeping her promise to the people of France. She was going back.

Agents were always flown on full moon nights so that visibility of the landing spot was high. A line of lights in an L shape pin-pointed the landing site. A special morse code told them it was safe to land.

Francis Suttill, head of her circuit - Prosper

Noor made her way alone to Paris and joined the circuit. It was the biggest SOE circuit in Europe called Prosper and was headed by an idealistic barrister from England, Francis Suttill. Her immediate chief was Henri Garry, a local French recruit. Soon Noor settled down and began transmission within 72 hours of arrival.

But within a week, disaster struck the Prosper circuit. All the top operatives were captured by the Gestapo and their wireless sets seized. Noor was advised to go into hiding immediately. Together with another SOE agent, France Antelme, she lay low gathering information about betrayals and further arrests as the Germans closed in.


Wireless sets

Wireless sets used by agents in WWII

Eventually London contacted her and asked her to return as it was too dangerous to stay on, but Noor refused. Realising that she was the last radio link left between London and Paris, she requested to stay back and supply information.

By mid-August Noor remained the only British agent in Paris and would have surely felt scared and isolated but kept her spirits up. Single-handed she now started doing the work of six radio operators. The next three months, Noor was to survive in a dangerous cat and mouse game played by the Gestapo.

Sticking to the rules of her training, she frequently changed her place of transmission, kept her transmissions short and even changed her appearance by constantly dyeing her hair.

She drew on old contacts in Paris, her school friends, her family doctor and used different addresses to transmit, helping London to pinpoint locations for arms drops, supply money and arms to the French Resistance and organise safe passages home for injured airmen.


In the dangerous summer of 1943, Noor Inayat Khan, a gentle writer and musician became Madeleine, the British agent, with the Germans hot on her heels. They knew about her and could even hear her transmissions but they could not catch her. Noor took her wireless set with her everywhere as she changed places to transmit. It was disguised in a suitcase and weighed 20 lbs, a fair amount for a frail girl to carry all the time. She had several narrow escapes. One day on the Metro she was stopped and questioned by two German officers. Noor kept her wits about her and cool as a cucumber told the Germans. “Can’t you see it’s a cinematographic apparatus. Look at all the light bulbs.”

The two Germans, totally ignorant of what a cinematographic apparatus looked like, and too embarrassed to admit it, simply let her go.

Noor as 'Madelaine'

Noor as ‘Madelaine’

Dodging the Gestapo in occupied Paris was no easy job. On another occasion she was hanging out her aerial on a branch outside her room when she suddenly heard a voice. “Can I help you Mademoiselle ?” She spun around and saw she was face to face with a German officer who lived in the same apartments. Once again, she turned on her charm and pretended she just wanted to listen to the wireless (which was banned). He ended up helping her put the aerial up, not realising for one moment that he had helped a British agent, who half an hour later was transmitting to London.

In London, her colleagues and seniors were stunned at her efficiency. Where most radio operators survived for two weeks, Noor Inayat Khan had worked clandestinely for three months. Her messages were flawless and her code master, Leo Marks felt a special sense of pride in her.

But the noose was tightening around Noor. Around the middle of October, she was still safe and would have managed to catch a flight out of France if she had not been betrayed. Noor’s address was sold to the Nazis for 100,000 francs. The person who betrayed her was Renee Garry, sister of Noor’s circuit leader, Henri Garry.

Once the Germans had Noor’s address they closed in on her and arrested her taking her to the Gestapo H.Q at 84 Avenue Foch.  Noor immediately made an escape attempt but was caught. A few weeks later she made another daring escape attempt with two other prisoners loosening the sky window and clambering on the roof. But as luck would have it, the RAF started bombing, even as the three prisoners were on the roof. The air raid sirens went off, the Germans searched the rooms and soon they were discovered. If this escape had succeeded it would have gone down as one of the most daring escapes of the Second World War ranking along with the legendary escapes from Colditz and Stalag camps.

‘Return not Required’

Noor was now labelled a “highly dangerous” prisoner. The orders to transfer her came directly from Berlin and she became the first woman agent to be sent to a German prison. She was sent to Pforzheim prison, a prison on the edge of the Black Forest, and stayed there for a period of ten months. Classified as “Nacht und Nebel” , Noor was shackled in chains and foot irons. She was kept in isolation and had her food delivered when no one was in the corridor. She could not feed or clean herself. She was regularly beaten, tortured and interrogated but she revealed nothing about her circuit and gave out no names.

Despite the desolation, she kept her spirits up, often thinking about her father and how he would soothe her when she was feeling low. She also remembered how he would tell her that she had “the blood of Tipu Sultan flowing in her veins”. By scratching a message on her food bowl she managed to establish contact with some fellow women prisoners in the other cells. Soon the messages went back and forth. “Vive la France” wrote Noor. The girls wrote back to her with encouraging words. They could hear the RAF planes flying overhead. Noor asked them to give her news of the progress of the war.  At night they could hear her crying in her cell and often heard her being slapped and interrogated.


On the night of September 11, Noor was ordered to come out of her cell. “I am leaving” were the final words she managed to scratch on her bowl. She was driven handcuffed to another prison in Karlsruhe and met three of her colleagues there. Together the girls were driven to the railway station from where they caught a train for Munich. They were told they were going to work as agricultural labourers. None of them realised that their escorting officer Max Wassmer, was carrying their execution orders with him.

They reached Dachau at midnight and walked with their suitcases to the concentration camp. In the chill air they saw the searchlights combing the camp and the huts where the prisoners were packed like cattle. It was to be a long night for Noor. Perhaps because she was labelled “highly dangerous”, and perhaps because she was dark-skinned, she was singled out for further torture. All night long, she was kicked and beaten and when her frail body had slumped on the floor, she was asked to kneel and shot point blank at the back of the head by an SS guard, Wilhelm Ruppert.

Her last words were “Liberté”. Immediately afterwards her body was thrown into the blazing crematorium.  Eyewitnesses saw smoke billowing out of the chimneys. Back in England, both her mother and brother had the same dream. Noor came to them surrounded by blue light. She told them she was free.

On 16 January 1946, the French awarded her the Croix de Guerre, the highest civilian honour. Three years later in 1949, England awarded her the George Cross.

In a sense she was born for sacrifice. She had sacrificed her youth to look after her siblings when her father died. She had been the main support for her mother. Later, when her adopted country needed her, she made the supreme sacrifice of her life.

In France,  Noor is remembered as Madeleine, a heroine of the Resistance. There is a plaque outside her family home in Suresnes and a band plays outside her house every year on Bastille Day. A leafy square in Suresnes has been named Cours Madeleine after her. The Mayor of Paris described her as a “modern day Joan of Arc” and  Madame de Gaulle Anthonioz, the niece of General Charles De Gaulle, paid tribute to her at a memorial service in Paris with the words:

“Nothing, neither her nationality, nor the tradition of her family, none of these obliged her to take her position in the war. However she chose it. It is our fight that she chose, that she pursued with an admirable and invincible courage.”

More than 60 years after the war, Noor’s story needs to be preserved for a new generation who need to know about the sacrifices made for freedom.


This article written by Shrabani Basu  is printed in Everyone’s War Issue 22


Shrabani Basu is a journalist and historian. She is the author of Spy Princess, The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. Her other books include Curry, The Story of the Nation’s Favourite Dish and Victoria & Abdul, The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant. She campaigned  as chair of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust for a memorial for Noor to be installed near her London house in Gordon Square. Unlike Paris, there was no personal memorial for Noor in London.

The Noor Inayat Khan Memorial trust  was  successful in its campaign to install the memorial of Noor in Gordon Square. On 8 November 2012, HRH The Princess Royal unveiled the memorial at a moving ceremony attended by over 450 people, including Noor’s family, veterans, M.Ps, Peers, Ambassadors, High Commissioners and guests from India, USA, Germany, Netherlands, France and Russia. A special message from Noor’s brother, Hidayat Inayat-Khan was read out.

“It has been a wonderful journey and we would like to thank everyone for it.”

UK Commemarative Stamp with Noor in WAAF Uniform

Britain’s Royal Mail issued a postage stamp of Noor Inayat Khan. The stamp is a part of a set of 10 stamps in their ‘Remarkable Lives’ series and honours Noor on her centenary year of birth. Others honoured in the set include actor Sir Alec Guinness and the poet Dylan Thomas.

Shrabani Basu said that it will ensure that her sacrifice and bravery will not be forgotten.